Bianca Johnson had one priority when she became the owner of her green-shuttered northwest Omaha home in 2019.
“As soon as I moved in, I immediately applied for weatherization,” Johnson said. “I knew the waitlist was relatively long.”
Johnson first learned about weatherization services — upgrades that improve the heating and cooling of a household and can reduce monthly energy bills – in her home state of Illinois. Once she became a homeowner, she applied to Habitat for Humanity Omaha’s weatherization program, which surveyed her home, insulated her attic and installed new exhaust systems, among other updates.
Three years later, Johnson estimates her energy bills are about 15% to 25% cheaper than they were before the changes.
“I love that I can be proactive and try to prevent some major expenses in the future,” she said. “And because I qualify, it’s at no cost to me.”
Weatherization not only saves households money, but it also helps reduce the risks of health impacts brought on by climate change. Climate change is expected to worsen health problems associated with poor indoor environmental quality, according to a report from the Institute of Medicine for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Weatherization also helps lessen a household’s energy burden — the percentage of gross income spent annually on energy bills.
In Omaha, low-income households put a much greater portion of their income into their power bills annually, according to a recent OPPD report that analyzed energy burden trends and solutions for their customers. Renters and customers who live in buildings built before 1980 also have higher energy burdens.
Low-income, Black, Hispanic and Native households — the same communities most affected by climate change — have far higher energy burdens than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a research and policy nonprofit. Higher energy burdens correlate with greater risk for respiratory diseases and increased stress and economic hardship.
The federal Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in August 2022, aims to bring energy-efficient changes into millions of homes across the country. Parts of the $370 billion climate investment will help cover or reduce residents’ costs to improve their household air quality and lower their energy bills.
Information and funding from the IRA is rolling out slowly to states and local communities. In the meantime, Omahans can take advantage of existing programs and prepare for coming IRA tax credits.
OPPD Customer Assistance Program
A pilot program through OPPD aims to help customers struggling financially by providing assistance in the form of a monthly bill credit. The Customer Assistance Program makes energy bills more affordable and is a recurring financial support.
The program currently has a capacity of 3,000 customers and is open for homeowners and renters of single-family homes.
Customers at or below 100% of the federal poverty line can apply online at DollarEnergy.com/MyApp or by calling 1-888-282-6816.
Habitat for Humanity Omaha’s weatherization program
OPPD also partners with Habitat for Humanity Omaha to connect customers with high energy burdens with weatherization services. It’s a long-lasting way to help make bills more affordable, according to Britton Gabel, manager of advocacy solutions at OPPD.
“When we put insulation into a home, for example, the money being saved will last for 10 to 15 to 20 years,” Gabel said.
Habitat for Humanity Omaha is one of eight weatherization service providers predominantly funded by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy. It’s the lead organization in Douglas County that provides weatherization services to qualifying low-income households.
In 2022, Habitat for Humanity Omaha performed 150 weatherization projects for seven rental homes and 143 homeowners, a spokesperson said in an email to The Reader. Workers determine what changes are needed to keep the residence cooling and heating as it should without wasting energy, then work with professionals to install the changes free of charge.
Statewide, NDEE has provided $225 million for energy-efficient improvements in more than 70,710 Nebraska homes since the federal weatherization program started in 1977, an NDEE spokesperson said in an email.
According to NDEE’s website, 51,000 Nebraska households are eligible for weatherization assistance services. Households with incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level may qualify for the services, but preference is given to people over 60, those with disabilities and families with children under 6.
Certain qualifications make it more challenging for low-income renters to apply to the program.
According to NDEE officials, while eligible renters can apply for the services, they need landlord approval and some work is restricted. Landlords must also agree not to raise rents within 12 months of the work being completed, according to NDEE.
Inflation Reduction Act incentives
A big part of the Inflation Reduction Act promises to help residents cover the costs of energy-efficient changes in their homes — namely through tax credits and rebates.
Homeowners will find the most opportunities to claim tax credits for their improvements, but renters have some opportunities to get credits, too. While some tax credits were available for 2022, new tax credits will be available for about 18 different energy products and services — including heat pumps, air conditioners and windows — from 2023 to 2032.
The best way to start the process of making a home more energy efficient is to contact an inspector to conduct a home energy audit. Homes that take the energy assessment can claim a tax credit for 30% of the cost, or up to $150, starting in 2023.
This professional perspective not only helps people build a strategy to get their basic energy savings needs met, but will also reveal inefficiencies in a home that most owners wouldn’t catch otherwise, according to Larry Emanuel, who co-owns Future Energy Dynamics, a company that provides home energy assessments to residents in the Midwest.
“You want the best return on your investment,” Emanuel said.
Residents should get a written report from the auditor.
The IRA will also include rebates for electric appliances and retrofits, the process of making changes to the systems or structures inside a building to improve its energy efficiency. These funds are not yet available, according to the Department of Energy, but once they are in late 2023 or early 2024, all households will be able access rebates of up to $4,000, and low-income households could receive up to $8,000.
Rebates will also cover the cost of installing electric appliances such as heat pump water heaters and clothes dryers in low and moderate-income households.
There’s much more information to come on the ways to get money back on energy-efficient home improvements. Check whitehouse.gov/cleanenergy for updates.
‘A better sense of security’
For Johnson, weatherizing her household sparked her desire to find more ways to invest in energy-efficiency changes for her home, including the possibility of installing solar panels.
She’s making those changes not only for her finances, but for the health and safety of her family, including two foster children she cares for.
“I appreciate every opportunity I get to only better their experiences,” she said. “It provides me with a better sense of security.”